As protests against racist violence continue around the country during a deadly pandemic, a group of journalists, authors, artists, and academics has taken a stand against “a “stifling atmosphere [that] will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time.”
In an open letter published on the Harper’s website last week, 153 figures, including J. K. Rowling, Fareed Zakaria, and Malcolm Gladwell, condemned the rise of a culture characterized by “an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.” The short manifesto argued that the “forces of illiberalism” are gaining strength across the political spectrum, beyond the radical right and the supporters of Donald Trump, as writers and thinkers face severe professional consequences for “perceived transgressions of speech and thought.” Several of my colleagues at The Atlantic signed the letter, which echoes the sentiment of other recent pieces from prominent writers, including the Rolling Stone contributing editor Matt Taibbi, the New York magazine columnist Andrew Sullivan, and the Johns Hopkins professor and Atlantic contributor Yascha Mounk. All of these statements contend that the democratic ideal of open debate is under siege at a time when it is most needed.
The Harper’s letter’s ostensible message championing the “free exchange of information and ideas” is easy enough to agree with, especially at a time when the president of the United States has made himself an enemy of the First Amendment and a free press. And yet the letter has led to a charged debate in the current fraught media climate. In recent years, defenses of “free speech” have often been wielded by people in positions of power in response to critics who want to hold them accountable for the real-life harm their words might cause. Many of these public figures frame any such consequences for their ideas as “cancel culture,” a phrase both hazy and incendiary that is broadly applied and often used defensively, the way someone might describe an article they don’t like as “clickbait,” simply to dismiss it.